Feelings 101: When Overeating is Used to Cope With Emotions

Woman with rainbow ribbons coming out of her mouth“Feelings, nothing more than feelings”, so the song goes.  Feelings can be painful. If we don’t have a good set of tools and skills for managing painful emotional states, it makes sense to resort to unhealthful tactics, such as misusing food. Disordered eating provides anesthesia of sorts, to protect us from painful emotions. Overeating stuffs feelings down and offsets painful emotions with sensory pleasure. Bingeing and inducing vomiting are ways people think they can stuff feelings down and then get rid of them. Restricting food intake is a way to avoid feeling in the first place, as being empty of food metaphorically equals being empty of feeling. One of the effects of this avoidance of feeling emotions is emotional illiteracy. Another is a lack of what I like to call emotional fitness.

The longer we avoid feeling our feelings, the more difficult it becomes to identify them. We might not even be aware that we are experiencing an emotion, although we are constantly doing so, just by virtue of the fact that we are alive. Becoming emotionally literate involves allowing ourselves to feel our emotions—the very thing that disordered eating protects us from. Years of avoiding emotional pain can make the prospect of feeling feelings very intimidating. When we allow ourselves to feel our emotions and meet the accompanying needs, emotions are fluid: they flow through us and move on. But when we use unhealthy eating behaviors to deal with them, they get stuck in our psyches and keep popping back up. Just the willingness to feel those feelings is an important part of the early stages of healing.

Becoming emotionally literate is similar to becoming literate in the usual sense of the word. When we learn to read, we start by learning to identify the letters of the alphabet. At this stage, we can name letters, but we don’t yet know how to put those letters together to form words. Then we learn to spell and read. Thus we link the sense of sight to the sense of hearing: the written word symbolizes the spoken word.

Once when we can put a name to an emotion, we can communicate to others that we are feeling that emotion. This disclosure increases closeness and connection to others. In order to become emotionally literate, we must not only be able to identify our emotions, we must learn to distinguish thoughts from feelings. When we tell someone that we are experiencing a given emotion, we often say, “I feel happy or sad” or “I’m happy or sad.” Most of my clients with an eating disorder confuse feelings and thoughts. I explain a way to tell the difference: if they are trying to describe what they are feeling and they say “I feel like I’m going to die” or “I feel that it was really unfair of him to do that”, then they are describing a thought. They’re up in their heads, where their thoughts reside, not down in their hearts or their guts, where their emotions dwell. When reporting an emotional state, “I feel” is followed not by “like” or “that,” but simply, the emotion word.

Emotional fitness has to do with the ability to tolerate painful feeling states. Think about physical fitness: if we lie on the sofa all day, we become physically unfit. Lifting a weight is difficult, so we don’t lift a weight, thus avoiding the discomfort we feel when we try to lift a weight that is heavier than we can manage. But our muscles atrophy, and a month later, that same weight is even more difficult to lift. The same is true of emotional fitness: the avoidance of feeling emotions makes those emotions all the more difficult to handle, because our emotion-management muscles have atrophied. Learning to handle emotions is like building up our healthy physical muscles: the stronger they are, the easier it is to handle emotional pain. As we become more adept at handling uncomfortable emotional states, we are less intimidated by the prospect of feeling them. When we have faith in our ability to cope with distress, we feel more confident in ourselves and more able to let others know what we feel. We are more connected to our inner worlds, and can experience deeper states of joy and satisfaction. We can grow closer to others as we communicate on a deeper level. We can let others know when we’re in emotional pain, and they can help us lift the emotional weight. We no longer have to rely on an eating disorder to protect us.

© Copyright 2011 by Deborah Klinger. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Shannon

    February 8th, 2011 at 5:07 PM

    Feelings are funny little things aren’t they. You can try to ignore them all you want to but they are not going to go away.

  • Chris

    February 9th, 2011 at 5:53 AM

    Holding your feelings prisoner and not allowing yourself to feel your feelings is akin to tying down a person and not letting him speak out! The expression of feelings is very important because otherwise the same feelings may turn to toxin if left unexpressed!


    February 9th, 2011 at 7:27 PM

    Holding back your feelings – not only is it not the right things to do but it can also make you feel pathetic about it later on…you may come to regret not having spoken out later on…I’ve been through such a situation and I wish nobody else would have to go through the same…

  • Mary

    June 15th, 2012 at 2:19 PM

    Way too much of my life has been spent living in environments in which my feelings were not allowed. So, what you say makes sense to me but for the fact that I find myself overcome and in tears whenever stressed for just about any emotion, positive or negative. I wish I could control the tears better because they can be really uncomfortable for other people and make me feel like I appear weak and childish. Got any solutions for managing the tears better?

  • Deborah Klinger, M.A., LMFT, CEDS

    June 19th, 2012 at 12:28 PM

    Hi Mary,
    Since I don’t know you and don’t know much about your circumstances, it’s hard to offer such advice. I will say that it can be helpful for all of us to make space for our tears, and for the parts of us that hold the emotions that cause the tears, by spending time journaling about how we feel, and talking to those close to us about it. And if you haven’t done or aren’t doing so, working with a therapist on this could be very valuable.
    Hope this helps,

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